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I was discussing the topic of the value of paper books with some fellow book lovers on Goodreads and I felt so strongly about the topic, I felt I should share it here.
E-books have their place in civilization (as we know it.) They save trees from being cut down. They are (in theory) more energy-efficient to produce and to share with others. E-books are fantastic for conveying information. But they rely on several dependencies even after they have been published. Energy. A digital library to store them. An e-reader.
A paper book requires all these things too, except for perhaps the e-reader which is a significant point I will return to shortly. But still, a paper book is a tangible thing. It’s more than simply the ideas it conveys. And since I’m a bit of a sci-fi fan, let me say that we dangerously assume the Internet (or its offspring) will be with us forever. There may come a time when digital information–whether because of politics or because of lack of energy, by accident or by design–will become obfuscated from the average person who lacks that knowledge, position, or technological capacity to evoke it from its electronic storage media. As long as humankind retains the ability to read, books, because of their simple non-technological user interface, are (as fragile as they are) probably much more resistant to catastrophe. What good is an e-book if one does not have an e-reader? What good is a digital library if it has been corrupted because of hackers, made unavailable because of those in power, or is inaccessible because of sun spots? I own paper books (own! There’s a word seldom applied in the digital age, where products are generally “licensed” or “subscribed to”) that have long outlived their authors, proving their tenacity. Will we be able to say the same of their digital brethren? We have not yet had the opportunity to test e-books in this fashion. An author may host their own e-books on their website. But where will they be stored once the author is no longer physically or financially capable of paying his hosting fee? They may upload books to many of the e-book providers, but only if they meet the policies of those institutions. And on the other side of the coin, when an avid reader passes on to the Great Unknown, how will they transfer their lifetime collection of beloved e-books to their loved ones?
There’s a feeling I get knowing that someone else had read a paper book before me. Paper books have traveling souls and develop strange histories all their own as they are passed from reader to reader. Stains appear. Notes are written in the margins. Love letters are left on the inside covers for friends. Flowers are pressed between their pages. Paper books have souls that grow stronger as they age. They may actually increase in value because of this
All of these things contribute to the soul of that paper book, not the story being told, but THAT ONE SPECIFIC BOOK that makes it unique among all its brothers and sisters. Who will ever look upon an e-book and say, “This is the same e-book that <insert famous person here> once read. You can tell by the electronic coffee stain, or the digital signature in the corner”?
More importantly, paper books better withstand the whims of future generations. New versions of paper books may change their text to suit new audiences, but as long as older versions can be found, their text by its nature will reflect the thoughts of that time. Electronic documents are easily cloned and more easily modified, thus they are transitory and untrustworthy. 1000 years from now (assuming e-books make it that far) while historians argue over the interpretation of an electronic text, there may be no “original version” to refer to. Worse, imagine a world in which Orwell’s Ministry of Truth can change the text of an e-book IN REAL TIME based on a variables such as which country the e-book is being read in, who the reader is, what time of day or year it is, what other e-books the reader has in their collection, etc. Sound like conspiracy theory? It’s quite possible and easy to do. E-books will be stored in “clouds” and accessible only through “approved” e-reading devices that run software managed by agencies that can filter such text as it is being downloaded for the reader. It could be used for perceived good (such as to remove foul language or explicit scenes if the reader is underage), but there is a strong chance it will be abused by those that control the technology required to display content.
Our generation may never understand this problem but in the distance future, our childrens’ children will find it increasingly important to be able to trust the information they are receiving or be controlled by it. Paper books are certainly not perfect, but they are stone tablets compared to e-books, with all the benefits and weaknesses thereof.